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In the digital era, Barneys New York might have created the blueprint for reaching millennial shoppers

Walking through Barneys New York earlier this summer, I could hear the hum of a tattoo gun and base coming from a DJ booth set up in the Wilshire Boulevard flagship store in Beverly Hills. That’s where I met Ogemdi Obiwuru, a 22-year-old fashion designer from Lakewood. He was taking in the palpable excitement of shoppers and the retailer’s special in-store experiences.

“Barneys is paying more attention to the kids and to the youth and making [shopping] an even more tangible experience,” Obiwuru told me. “They’re actually bridging a connection with the consumer and saying, ‘It’s not just about the money. We want to actually connect with you.’ ”

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Connection. Making a connection. That’s what we appear to be seeking in 2018, and that’s not always something retailers are able to accomplish using an app or a website. For bricks-and-mortar brands, maintaining a bond with shoppers is the holy grail in the digital age.

After all, quarter after quarter, news reports make retail sound bleak, especially with the talk of department stores and malls fighting for survival as consumers embrace other shopping avenues. (It sounds much like a version of what’s often reported about the struggles of newspapers and print magazines.) In terms of shopping, it appears that one minute, consumers are enamored by subscription boxes such as Birchbox and Trunk Club or pop-up shops (which seem to be everywhere in L.A. these days), and the next, they want a human touch and a bunch of in-store amusements.

The latter is how Barneys has managed to bring customers through its doors. The luxury retailer had a June shopping event in Beverly Hills similar to the one it had at its New York flagship on Madison Avenue last year. Having written about the fashion scene for years for The Times and several other publications as well as having attended my share of retailer “moments,” Barneys’ event was a standout this season — and a lesson for other retailers.

The event, thedropLA@barneys, proved that consumers are open to looking up from their phones and venturing into the world to shop, especially for an experience that includes exclusive merchandise, food and entertainment. To me, the Barneys approach also showed that traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers can still raise the bar on their in-store experiences as a whole and that decades-old stores can evolve to attract and retain a younger, loyal customer base, particularly millennials who are said to be cautious with their spending habits.

For this event, there was exclusive designer merchandise available during the weekend as well as a flurry of in-store activations, including meet-and-greets with designers, a pizza stand and body piercings. These amusements appeared to be a draw for regular Barneys shoppers as well as the next generation of shoppers.

Obiwuru attended the Barneys event with his best friend, 23-year-old fashion designer Will Brad, of Long Beach. Obiwuru said they were attending thedropLA@barneys specifically to see Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo and Rhuigi Villasenor of L.A. label Rhude.

“The best part about this is seeing the designers,” Brad told me. “We spoke to Rhuigi, and he called this a big moment for L.A. I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“This” was the event’s sartorial sensory overload and the dozens of Instagram opportunities happening all at once. Shoppers flocked to a Moon Juice stand where smoothies and juices were doled out. They got to take in the blinking Prada Pachinko wall, a red-and-white Gucci-themed roller rink and a table where people were receiving real tattoos. Despite the endless attractions, plenty of visitors to the store were actually buying goods, made evident by the clear plastic shopping bags that were used specifically for thedropla@barneys event.

“We’re here to see Heron Preston and shop the exclusive drop,” said Sophie Sun, a 21-year-old communications student from Manhattan Beach. “The more exclusive it is — and the more there is a sense of urgency — is a major motivating factor for me to shop.” Sun was perusing Preston’s line to scoop up T-shirts for a vacation.

Jacob Walker, a 25-year-old personal shopper from San Francisco, purchased a Fear of God jacket and Rhude T-shirt. “This was a dope marketing concept and a good way to get people in here to spend money,” he said. “Also, having free stuff? Everybody loves free stuff.”

For Obiwuru, however, it wasn’t as much about free stuff as it was furthering his foothold in the fashion industry as a young, fledgling designer.

Ah, and that was it. Here on the floors of Barneys, a connection was made.

“A lot of the high-end stores have been known to be standoffish in the past,” he said. “Now stores might see me as a designer; whereas, three years ago, it might have been something else. This makes me feel like, ‘Hey, we do really care about you guys. We do want to get you involved as more of a family and a community.’ That’s what’s going to help the next generation of Barneys shoppers and people like me to be loyal. And meeting these designers in person like we are today makes it seem way more possible. Like, if I work hard I can actually attain this.”

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